Dogs today come in so many different shapes and sizes.
We humans have obviously had some fun playing around with the conformation (body shape) of our dogs over the last century or two, and “why not?” you might reasonably ask.
It is wonderful to have so much choice and diversity.
After all, who wants a dog that looks just like everyone else’s?
The influence of body shape
It might seem that the body shape or conformation of your dog has no relevance to his future health or happiness.
But unfortunately this is not the case.
The shape and structure of the breed you choose may have a significant impact on his future.
And this is something you need to consider.
It makes sense to first consider the ‘ideal’ body shape of a dog if we are aiming for optimal health.
We can then look at the different ways that we have diverged from that ideal, as we have developed different breeds of dog.
And then at the effects that divergence has had on the dogs affected.
Ideal body shape
Dogs are descended from wolves, and we can look at wolves and other wild canids to see the kind of conformation required for healthy living.
A well constructed dog has a balance between his leg length and the length of spine that lies between his hips and shoulders. He has a long muzzle, a tail free from curls or kinks, and upright ears.
Many modern dogs still have this basic body shape, think of border collies, for example. And crossbreeds and mongrels tend to revert to this body shape.
But many more dogs have been bred with one or more parts of their body altered disproportionately to the rest
We now have dogs with very short legs relative to their spines, dogs with exceptionally long coats, dogs with tightly coiled tails, flattened faces, or voluminous folds of skin.
Sometimes with two or more of these attributes.
These alterations in the proportions of the dog’s body are part of what gives us the huge variety of breeds we have today.
Changes with purpose
Some of these alterations were originally created with a useful purpose in mind.
We bred dachshunds and some of our terrier breeds with shorter legs to help them cope with their role of going underground to hunt badgers and foxes.
We bred sighthounds with narrow aerodynamic bodies, long legs and deep ribcages, to make them faster and more powerful runners.
Some of the alterations we made to our dogs had no apparent useful purpose. Like the flattening of the pug’s face to make it seem more human.
In some cases the original purpose of the alterations we made, may have been forgotten.
But what we do know, is that for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with ‘purpose’, for reasons of fashion and whim, the shapes of many of our dog breeds began to be exaggerated, and grew more extreme with each passing generation.
We began to breed dogs so altered and different from their ancestors that they were hampered and disadvantaged by the bodies they now found themselves inhabiting. We had in fact invented a whole new health problem. The problem of conformational defects
What is a conformational defect
Most people agree that dogs should be able to express normal ‘doggy’ behaviour. They ned to be able to run, jump, play and generally enjoy physical activity.
A conformation defect can be said to have occurred, when the conformation or basic structure of the dog interferes with his ability to engage in normal doggy behaviour, or when it interferes with his health.
Breeding for variety is one thing. Breeding exaggerations in conformation that are so extreme as to result in dogs with defective conformation is another.
There are many issues which influence the welfare of dogs in the UK and elsewhere. From puppy farming to inbreeding, to shoddy training methods and even outright abuse.
But perhaps the subject that has caught the public interest in the last few years more than any other, is the subject of exaggerated conformation.
It is a subject that has caused deep divisions between the dog breeding community and the wider public, and is one that all new puppy buyers need to be aware of. Because feelings run high, and it can be hard to get objective information on the subject.
Your puppy’s body shape
What you need to know, is how the shape and structure of his body can affect your puppy’s health. Are there certain shapes you should avoid? Is there any way to tell whether the puppies you want to look at have been bred to extremes?
These are not easy questions to answer. Nor is it easy to get a consensus on the right answers to each question.
What we can do here is give you some general guidelines, and help you avoid extremes where possible. In some cases this means eliminating entire breeds of dog from your shortlist.
What about breed standards?
A breed standard is a kind of blueprint or specification for what a dog that belongs to a certain breed should look like. It is important that we remember that a breed standard is drawn up, and interpreted, by a particular group of human beings.
It doesn’t represent what that breed ‘should’ look like, only what a particular group of people consider that that breed should look like.
Even the Kennel Club and the Breed Clubs don’t always agree as to how the breed standard should be interpreted. Indeed in some cases the breed standard is being interpreted so badly by the dog showing community, that the kennel club has allocated that breed to be ‘at risk’ from conformational defects. You can read more about this in my article on the breedwatch scheme.
The message here is that just because the breeder says the dog is ok, and just because a dog meets the breed standard, it does not mean that the dog necessarily has a healthy conformation.
You are going to have to make that judgement for your self. Here are some things to look out for
If you think pugs are cute, you are not alone, over eight thousand pug puppies were registered last year and the interest in these characterful little dogs continues to grow
Flat faced dogs like pugs and pekinese, suffer from an extreme conformational defect called brachycephaly.
If you think it is shocking that we would even consider breeding dogs with such an extreme conformation, you are not alone. But the fact is, most people that buy pug puppies have no idea what they are supporting.
If you are thinking of buying a brachycephalic puppy such as a ‘bulldog’, ‘french bulldog’, pug, or pekinese, do first read this article: Brachycephalic puppies so that you have a good idea of what may lie ahead.
When we make dogs smaller or make their legs very short, this is often achieved by breeding from dogs with a genetic disability found in both dogs and humans.
There are several different types of dwarfism that affect our modern dogs. The extent to which the dog’s legs are shortened relative to the length of his spine, will affect the degree to which the dog’s health is affected.
In some show dogs, basset hound and dachshunds for example, the leg shortening has become extreme. And puppies bred from parents like these are destined for painful spinal problems.
This is something you need to consider as it is easily avoided by choosing a breed with a more balanced legs in proportion to the spine.
Too much skin
If you just love the droopy eyes of the bloodhound and the soulful expression on his face, or if you fancy the cute wrinkles on the sharpei, you should know what the downsides are.
Too much skin forms into skin folds, and these trap dirt and debris. They need regular cleaning or they become smelly and infected.
If the folds are on the dog’s face, they may irritate the eyes. Excessive skin is also sometimes linked with collagen defects that affect the dog’s joints as well as his appearance.
Saggy skin on the face is a magnet for gravity and causes the membranes under the eye to be exposed. That’s what gives the bloodhound his expression. The downside, frequent sore eyes and eye infections, which are very painful and upsetting.
Just like so many other aspects of conformation, these kinds of skin problems arise because we have been deliberately breeding animals for these unhealthy attributes.
The message here, is buy a puppy from parents that have ‘tight eyes’ no loose skin or saggy lower eyelids. No deep skin folds on the body. They may look cute, but they are a really bad idea.
You don’t want to be shelling out for a ‘facelift’ (yes, really) before your dog’s second birthday. There are many many breeds to choose from that don’t have these problems.
And there’s more
There are other problems caused by breeding for defective conformation. Like the bizarre issue of the hindquarters of some of our German Shepherd Dogs, or the neurological problems caused by cramming a normal brain into the brachycephalic skull of the Cavallier King Charles Spaniel.
Even too much coat can be a problem in some breeds. You can find out more by following the relevant links
One final factor we have not considered in this article is body size. The effect that breeding dogs ever larger or ever smaller, has had on their health. And we’ll be looking at that next time. For now, let’s sum up.
When you are thinking about what type of puppy to bring into your life, try to avoid extremes of body shape.
Think ‘wolf’ and try not to diverge too far from the basic principle of a balanced body shape, with legs in proportion to spine.
In particular, stay away from dogs with very flattened faces, voluminous skin, and very short legs.
Your wallet will thank you and so will your dog.
Happy with the shape and structure of your chosen dog? Then check out the next step along your journey here. Puppy Search Four: Does size matter?